The diverse life experiences of Montreal's Laurent Duvernay-Tardif would make a fascinating biography, from being home-schooled while on extended family sailboat adventures to juggling football training and hospital rounds at medical school. And now his improbable journey is taking him from modest Canadian university fields to the bright lights of the National Football League.
The 6-foot-5, 315-pound offensive tackle and medical student from McGill University was just the 10th CIS football player ever drafted by an NFL team when the Kansas City Chiefs took him in the sixth round – 200th overall – earlier this month. But what's exceptional is that he managed to excel on just one football practice a week, while balancing med-school duties ranging from surgery rotations to treating injured athletes and caring for premature babies.
"Many people told me I would have to make a choice – pick football or medicine – that I couldn't do both," 23-year-old Duvernay-Tardif said during a wide-ranging interview by phone from Kansas City. "I wanted both careers. I think you always have to push yourself in life."
Duvernay-Tardif grew up with his parents and two younger sisters in Mont-Saint-Hilaire, a suburb east of Montreal. Twice – in 1999 and in 2006 – the tightly knit French-speaking family embarked on year-long sailing trips down the U.S. east coast and off into the Caribbean islands, so the kids were schooled on board by their parents.
"He had a lot of responsibilities for a boy of his age, and he would be in charge of the navigation with his dad," his mother, Guylaine Duvernay, said by translated e-mail. "This way of learning allowed him to develop his independence and a strong willpower that has served him very well. This trip was a privileged moment in our family life. Meeting new people, the discoveries, the openness, the love of travelling and understanding that things can be done differently."
Often, they visited small, deserted islands. They fished and ate their catches.
"We lived very simply on those trips, working hard sailing and fishing," recalls Duvernay-Tardif, who spent several summers in Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula, instructing and competing in sailing. "It was an amazing experience, and it made our family very close."
Even as a youngster, his interests were varied: violin, soccer, basketball, sailing and cross-country skiing. He thought of someday joining Doctors Without Borders.
His parents made a living in small businesses. They once had a vineyard; now they have a chain of bakeries named Le Pain dans les Voiles, which fittingly translates to Bread in the Sails. The whole family has pitched in: Duvernay-Tardif would often be there in the wee hours before school or football, taking hot loaves from the ovens and shipping them off to local restaurants. Often he'd then have to race off to McGill for an early-morning offensive linemen's meeting, taking a bag of bakery treats to share with teammates.
He started football at age 14 but didn't enjoy it at first. He thought he would quit at the end of high school to concentrate on his studies in university. But when the sport began to get more tactical, he fell in love with strategizing, absorbing formations and making split-second decisions.
"When it became very strategic, then it became a true passion," said Duvernay-Tardif.
His school obligations and loyalty to the family business limited him to one practice per week at McGill, along with the day-before walk-throughs. That irked some teammates and coaches early on. He showed promise on the defensive line, but once they moved him to offence, he elevated into a fast-thinking and agile powerhouse – one coaches believed could star in the CFL someday. So they lived with his absences.
"He would usually have the game plan totally digested after one practice," said McGill football coach Clint Uttley. "He never gets knocked off his feet and he's as strong as a bull. He's the kind of player who only comes along every 10 or 15 years for me. I've had kids who have drawn NFL interest, but I've never had the full package like this before."
While many Canadian players struggle to get noticed south of the border, this lineman hired his best friend, a savvy law student with a comprehensive plan to get his name out.
Sasha Ghavami, a University of Montreal law school senior getting a head start on a career as a sports agent, set to work getting the lineman's game film out across the U.S. He got Duvernay-Tardif signed on with NFL agent Chad Speck of Tennessee-based Allegiant Athletic Agency, who represents a stable of players including the Chiefs' Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Vaughn Martin, another CIS product.
Ghavami and Speck helped him get an invitation to the 2014 East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., last January, a showcase primarily for graduating NCAA seniors. He had won the J.P. Metras Trophy last fall as the most outstanding lineman in the CIS, but this was still a Canadian university player who was suddenly face to face with the best of the NCAA.
"The East-West Shrine Game was the pivotal point as far as his NFL draft status," said Speck by phone from Knoxville. "His physical presence was undeniable. We talked going down there: 'They know you haven't played American football and haven't played offensive line very long, and you're going to miss assignments. But show them you have what's hard to coach – your competitiveness and your ability to outright punish people at your position. Show that, and someone will give you a chance.'"
Facing the best competition he'd yet faced, raw but quick-learning Duvernay-Tardif impressed with his "nastiness" on the line in Florida. Some draft gurus at the time suggested he needed to adjust to playing without a yard separating the offensive and defensive lines, to getting into blocks more quickly, honing his angles and improving his control. But NFL scouts seemed to think he had all the right tools.
"He really came onto our radar there [the Shrine Game]. It was like, 'Wow, who's this guy?'" said Chiefs scout Pat Sperduto. "He was physical and he really surprised us – how good an athlete he was for such a big man."
Duvernay-Tardif then went to train in Knoxville, soaking up NFL terminology and line formations.
Ghavami did something rare for a CIS player: He organized a so-called pro day at McGill and invited CFL and NFL teams to watch Duvernay-Tardif – a player who hadn't even been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine – work out. Representatives from nine NFL and four CFL teams made the trip, and a media throng turned up too. They watched him put up test scores that would have ranked him among the top eight in every category at his position at the NFL combine.
"Had he played at a [major U.S.] BCS school," said Speck, "we would be talking about a first- or second-round pick."
After that March pro day, he jetted off to various NFL cities by invitation, where he stood before their white boards and proved he could digest formations quickly. He also answered the inevitable questions about his priorities, saying he plans to play NFL football and devote two off-season months per year to finishing his medical degree so that he can graduate four years from now.
On draft weekend, Duvernay-Tardif was back in Montreal, catching up on hospital rounds. He was late to join friends watching the draft on TV because an emergency C-section had him staying late to care for premature twins.
After hearing his name called in the sixth round, he left for Kansas City, where he's now training with the Andy Reid-coached Chiefs.
"It's almost a new game, a lot of new stuff to learn and so different from Canadian football," said Duvernay-Tardif. "But I love the mix of physical and mental skills, and I think I'm showing I can learn things fast. I'm a cerebral guy."